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Setting the Trap

October 24, 2010

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 22     Luke 18:9-14


I want you to slip into your imagination for a minute to see an awkward, skinny, five year old, blonde-haired boy with a missing front tooth. In a faded old 16mm home movie he looks like he is in perpetual motion – a mechanical toy that never winds down. Now dress him in a coonskin hat and a fringed buckskin jacket provided him by an overly indulgent grandfather. He is carrying a long toy musket he proudly calls Ol’ Betsey. Now imagine the impossible. His name is Clay. I know. Hard to believe and I’ve seen the film. 


When I was five the most popular movie for the younger set was Davy Crockett. So many of my friends also wanted to be the “King of the Wild Frontier,” wrastlin’ bars and shootin’ Injuns and rememberin’ the Alamo, no one wanted to play the Indians in neighbourhood games. Since I had the right outfit I, of course, was excused from taking a turn as an Indian.


Part of what makes a good story good is being able to identify with the characters. It must be part of being human. Even toddlers want to wear their Spiderman pajamas to bed and dress up as one of Disney’s many princesses to go to childcare. It is also true that we usually identify with the heroic and beautiful rather than the villain, unless it is Halloween.


This human characteristic apparently has always been true, for Jesus uses it to set a trap for us in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee appears to be the good guy. He follows the law faithfully, keeps himself pure, and is grateful to God. The tax collector is definitely the villain of the piece. The tax collector is a corrupt collaborator for the oppressive occupiers and would be considered to have all the moral standing of a pimp in today’s society. Now Jesus’ listeners are beginning to catch on to his trick of turning their expectations upside down, so they know that instead of identifying with the obvious hero they are expected to identify with the unthinkable, the tax collector. Or maybe they have something in common with Kiwis. As soon as they hear the Pharisee thank God that he is not a rogue or an adulterer or a tax collector, they want to cut his tall poppy attitude down to size. As soon as do they fall into the trap. Even Luke falls for it.


Those more scholarly than I believe Jesus ended his story with the line: “This man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” There is no judgment in Jesus’ words. It is Luke who adds, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Judgment and punishment ooze satisfyingly from Luke’s response. Since exaltation is the more desirable outcome, the tax collector is the good guy we all want to be and no one wants to play the Pharisee. We take to our role with relish, thanking God that we are not like the faithful Pharisee. As soon as we hear our prayer we know Jesus has stuck it to us. We aren’t any different than Fritz Hollings, who was the Senator from South Carolina for nearly forty years. He once took a lie detector test to see what it was like. He failed as soon as he said, “In my humble opinion.”


For 2000 years Jesus has been setting this trap and for 2000 years we have been falling for it. We are so used to falling for it we think it is the right thing to do. We commonly use the word Pharisee as a pejorative. Of course we don’t always use the word, sometimes we replace it with Tea Baggers or Fundies or Happy Clappies. From the other side of the political and theological spectrum we might call them tree huggers, lefties or heretics.


The irony is that the Pharisees and Jesus had more in common than we assume. Some have even tried to make the case that Jesus was a Pharisee. I remain an agnostic as to whether or not he was, as we know remarkably little about them and one of the three sources we have about them is the New Testament. There is no question that by the time Luke’s Gospel was written in 70 CE Christians Jews and the Pharisaic Jews had had a falling out, because the Christians put Jesus not only over Caesar but the Torah as well. Pharisaic Jews considered it an anathema to consider Jesus, not the Torah, as the fullest revelation of God. It was natural for early Christian writers to make them the foil to Jesus’ message. The sad unintended consequence of this literary device has been 2000 years of anti-Semitism.


What we think we know about the Pharisees is that they arose as a Jewish religious force around 150 BCE in response to the Hellenization of Jewish life under Roman rule. They were committed to protecting Jewish identity by studying the Torah and carefully observing customary requirements in certain areas of life, such as tithing, purity laws, the Sabbath, marriage and divorce, and temple ritual. They saw themselves as a Jewish renewal movement. Underlying their passion and missionary zeal for faithful living was the vision of Israel as a covenant community whose future blessing or punishment was contingent on observance of the Torah. After they faded from history, their spiritual heirs are today’s rabbis. [i]


The reason some argue Jesus was a Pharisee is that they shared similar goals including a passion for the renewal of Israel as a community that expressed and promoted the rule of God in human affairs. Others argue he wasn’t a Pharisee because they differed in how to achieve it. We just don’t know. There were no Christian Jews to be in conflict with in Jesus’ day. Since Jesus didn’t believe his personhood should replace the Torah there may not have been any disagreement over religious beliefs.


Anyway, Jesus wasn’t concerned with religion. He wasn’t trying to reform what existed or create a new one. He knew religion couldn’t save us. While he wouldn’t have even thought of the possibility of Christianity, if he could’ve he would’ve known Christianity couldn’t save us either. The story he told about the Pharisee and the tax collector wasn’t about right doctrine or proper prayer. He was pointing out, first and foremost, that God loves us no matter what. There is nothing we can do to be more loved. There is nothing we can do to be less loved. There is nothing we can do to be more valuable than we already are. The parable is not about whom God will exalt more but how to experience the fullness of God’s acceptance of us as we are.


That should be good news, but if we are honest, I think it mostly annoys us. Judging the deficiencies of others is so much more satisfying than thinking divine love includes them just as much as it does us. We know “they” are jerks. Why doesn’t God? And furthermore, if we are loved as we are, why go to the trouble of trying to be more worthy of love? Jesus keeps trying to explain to us that when we experience his love knowing we have not earned it, we are freed to reflect it. Love precedes our response, not the other way around. When we still don’t get it, the love Jesus embodied, refuses to judge us. We just continue to be loved with the hope that the next time we hear the parable we won’t fall into the trap.


[i] John Meier, A Marginal Jew, III, 330

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